GREENSMITH by Aliya Whiteley (BOOK REVIEW)
“It was so very upsetting to think she was incapable of seeing difference properly. It would be pointless to travel a universe if all the sights, sounds and smells of it had to be filtered through the tiny pinhole camera of her own humanity in order to understand it in anything approaching human terms.”
Aliya Whiteley astounds not just by the quality of her output but by the sheer range. From folk horror-tinged time travel of The Arrival Of Missives (2016) to the body horror romcom of The Loosening Skin (2018), she effortlessly works across unusual combinations of disparate genres to create something new, unusual and striking. Her latest novel Greensmith (2020) is another confounding and brilliant novel that sees Whiteley exploring yet another medium with surprising and disorienting results. This time, Whiteley channels both Douglas Adams’ iconic The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (1979) and beloved British SF TV institution Doctor Who. However in typical Whiteley fashion, what begins as a whimsical humorous space opera adventure soon reveals a darker more contemplative side that explores unfamiliar and disturbing facets of these much loved stories. None of which stops Greensmith from being charming, fun and thoroughly troubling.
Anyone familiar with Doctor Who will recognise the set up of Greensmith. Penelope Greensmith lives in the English countryside where she has dedicated her life to cataloguing Earth’s plants with the Vice, a mysterious device she inherited from her father. Her mundane life is interrupted one day when the mysterious and charming Horticulturalist – Hort for short – appears in her garden and warns her of a galactic plague destroying all plant life. Hort believes that the Vice contains the key to the salvation of the galaxy, and whisks Penelope away on a fantastical adventure through space and time to save life as we know it. The promise of adventure, romance and a chance to be a hero are enough to drag Penelope away from her everyday life, but meanwhile her daughter Lilly is left on Earth and must struggle to survive the ravages of the devastating plague destroying the planet’s plant life.
Greensmith engages with the fact that must be ignored for the entire premise of Doctor Who to work – while the Doctor and his companions are out having adventures, the people the companions leave behind must suffer through the various trials and tribulations the Doctor’s enemies throw at the planet. And as the show evolves and moves on, the Doctor will always ultimately leave and outlive his companions. By contrasting Penelope’s adventures with Lilly’s experience living through the plant-destroying plague, Greensmith forces the reader to confront the question of where heroism lies – with those who go off and have adventures, or with those who suffer through true hardship and adversity when they are left behind. Lilly doesn’t even know what has happened to her mother – from her perspective, Penelope disappeared without warning one day. Similarly, Greensmith asks us how much an immortal alien who needs the humanity of companions to keep him rooted in this reality but who ultimately knows they are expendable can really care about them or the lives they have left behind. As Penelope discovers more and more about Hort’s past, and the countless other companions who came before her, the cracks in Hort’s charm reveal something far more sinister and uncomfortable underneath.
In Greensmith, Whiteley has loads of fun evoking Adams’ absurdist view of the universe, a very British sensibility of science fiction which he shares with Doctor Who. In a delightful sequence, Hort and Penelope must aid a planet of sentient flamingo aliens with names like Fluffy and Princess overthrow their monstrous lizard oppressors. Yet typically Whiteley is not satisfied by merely evoking a previous tradition of science fiction. As the novel continues, we discover that the whimsical and fantastical creatures and planets Penelope encounters are really the alien universe translated into something she can recognise in human terms. Penelope tries to engage with the aliens on their own terms, but finds that her human senses of perception are unable to process them in a meaningful way. Hence why the aliens appear to her as amusing talking flamingos – it allows her to interact with the alien in a way she can comprehend. However Penelope is understandably disappointed to learn that she will always filter the wonders of the universe through her limited human perception, that she is incapable of truly interacting with an Other on their own terms because of the limits of humanity. Thus we get an explanation for the familiarity of Doctor Who’s planets of the week that does not elide their true alienness but forces us to reflect on the limits of human perception. There is a wider reflection on science fiction as a whole – Whiteley is aware that any attempts by humans to imagine the truly alien will always be confined by our own human imaginations and contexts. Greensmith playfully engages with fun space opera tropes only to strain against them, to push science fiction readers to the edge of their imaginations in an admittedly futile attempt to imagine outside our own experiences.
Taken as a whole, Greensmith is a wild mix of ideas, concepts and tones, from gonzo space opera fun to post-apocalyptic despair. In the hands of a lesser writer it would feel like disparate parts ungainly clumped together. Whiteley somehow manages to make Greensmith fit together as a coherent whole. The humour and fun of its Adams-esque side serve to highlight the darkness of its post-apocalyptic side. The wild fantasy of Penelope and Hort’s space adventures make the grimly recognisable everyday life from which Penelope tries to escape all the more realistic, and makes Hort’s ultimate betrayal of Penelope’s humanity sting all the harder. Greensmith is both a fantastically fun ride and a profound reflection on the failings of humanity. As such it is a thoroughly relevant and powerful example of how genre fiction can be thought-provoking and discomforting whilst still being engaging, fun and exciting. I look forward to see where Whiteley’s imagination will take us next.